Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club Notes
Week 1, we watch Night Passage (2004). Click here to join the screening.

Before watching, consider the 1927 novella that Trinh pays tribute to, Milky Way Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. The Japanese children’s book tells the story of Giovanni, a boy with a difficult home life who also struggles as an outcast at school. On the night of the Festival of the Stars, Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, are transported to a train ride through the universe, during which they meet and learn from many new people.

Think also of the interview with Alison Rowley, in which Trinh notes, “Life is not explicable when it is lived intensely, with magical freshness. What I kept of Miyazawa in Night Passage were spirit, structural forces, and field of action.”

In our research, we found that Miyazawa’s train ride has inspired many. For example, consider the train that journeys between worlds in the 2001 Studio Ghibli classic, Spirited Away.

Through her recreation of Miyazawa’s train ride, Trinh demonstrates that "hearing is never linear.” Throughout Night Passage, pay particular attention to how Trinh treats “sound not as sound effects but as music, making full use of the forbidden yield of what the classic, musically trained ear calls ‘noise’ or ‘nonmusical.’” Think, too, of how this relates to the film narrative’s overall linearity.


During Week 2, we watch The Fourth Dimension (2001). Click here to join the screening.

We follow the train that drives the nonlinear narrative of Night Passage to The Fourth Dimension. While Night Passage is a fictional film, The Fourth Dimension is a documentary (although Trinh often eschews this categorization of her “non-fiction” films). The Fourth Dimension’s train serves as a vehicle for meditation on time, ritual, language, and modernity, as Trinh turns her anthropological eye to Japanese culture. The subject matter of The Fourth Dimension is reinforced by the medium of the film itself, as this is Trinh’s first work produced using a digital video camera.

Just as sound plays an integral role in disrupting the linearity and predictability of Night Passage, language is a key element of The Fourth Dimension. Consider how pace and intonation enable language to act as a score or as choreography.

Trinh narrates The Fourth Dimension in English, but words are spoken or shown on screen in Japanese from time to time. Think too of the historical context of the year 2001 and how this impacts our understanding of the intermingling of English and Japanese languages throughout the film.

Trinh’s musical treatment of language pairs with her focus on time and progress, both through the narrative of the film and through the experience as a viewer. Consider how Trinh uses slowness and resistance to speed as a tactic to encourage a new way of seeing; how she juxtaposes “Noh time” and “train time,” or tradition and modernity, in relation to her search for a third interval between time and space. Consider how Trinh chooses to name this interval “Women’s Time.”


Week 3 we are watching Surname Việt Given Name Name (1989). Click here to join the screening.

This film is a documentary, but does it present the truth? In it we follow four Vietnamese women living in America. First, they recount what we think are personal experiences of their time in Vietnam. They speak in English, with heavy accents. As their mouths move, mis-matched subtitles and seemingly unrelated audio ask us to question the film’s authority and accuracy.

In reality, these accounts are lifted from Mai Thu Vân’s 1983 book Việtnam: un peuple, des voix, which presented interviews conducted in Vietnamese and then translated into French. Trinh then translated portions of the book into English. While the stories recited in the film are true, they were not experienced by the women on screen. Consider the implications of authorship as it relates not only to filmmaking, but translation.

The title of the film--the earliest of Trinh’s films we have screened--refers to a famous quote from Vietnamese anti-colonial nationalist Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940), in which he stated that unmarried women should identify themselves as “My surname is Việt, given name is Nam.” In other words, women belong either to the state or to a man.

Halfway through the film, the women switch from scripted stories to personal ones. This film not explores multiplicity through the act of interviews and translation, but also through the many roles Vietnamese women are expected to play in society. As with many of her later films, Surname Việt posits that women’s bodies are the site of translation.


Week 4 we watch A Tale of Love (1995). Click here to join the screening.

Similar to the way that Trinh structured Night Passage around a Japanese classic, A Tale of Love embodies the epic Vietnamese poem, The Tale of Kiều. Written by the early 19th-century poet Nguyễn Du, the poem is regarded as the most significant in Vietnamese literature. It tells the tragic story of a talented woman who gets trapped in a cycle of sex work and servitude in order to save her family from hardship.

In Trinh’s version, Kiều is a young Vietnamese writer who supplements her income by working as a model while researching The Tale of Kiều for a women’s magazine. The photographer Kiều works with insists that his female models wear veils and look away from his camera. Consider Hélène Cixous’s “Castration or Decapitation?” as Kiều tells her photographer, “You don’t want a nude; what you want is a female body without a head.”

As Lan P. Duong points out, Kiều takes on multiple professional roles, in addition to roles as a lover and a daughter, representing “a metonymic figure for diasporic women and their storytelling agency.” Think of how Trinh interrogates the act of translation and explores multiplicity through narrative filmmaking.

Trinh’s Kiều moves between objective and subjective positions in a nonlinear narrative that blends reality with dreams, memories, and fantasy. Consider the parallels drawn between love, writing and sensuality and how these relate to voyeurism in Gwendolyn Foster’s 1997 interview with Trinh.

Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club, hosted by Shaelyn Hanes and Emily Markert

Thursdays, 5pm PST / 8pm EST on YouTube

July 2: Night Passage
July 9: The Fourth Dimension
July 16: Surname Viet, Given Name Nam
July 23: A Tale of Love

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